Sunday, June 15, 2014

Theater review: "Respect"


Cedar Rapids's marvelous arts venue, CSPS, hosted the premiere Saturday night of the University of Iowa's Summer Rep production of "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women". It was written by Dorothy Marcic of Vanderbilt University, based on her book Respect: Women and Popular Music (Texere, 2002). It contains 63 songs, nearly all of which were 20th century top 40 hits by female artists. A tour is planned, with other ensembles performing around the country, and I heartily encourage anyone within range to see it.

The cast is four female characters, one of whom plays the author and provides commentary and narration. (At first I thought she was the author, then realized there was no way she was old enough to have attended high school in the 1960s.) The other three sing and dance throughout the roughly 100-minute show. Some songs are sung on their own, some in simple medleys, and some in medleys that weave back and forth between the different songs. The harmonies and choreography were impressive, as was their energy level. I ran into a couple of the actresses after the show and asked them how they were even walking after all that dancing about. "Adrenaline is a wonderful thing," they said.

The music is presented more or less linearly from 1901 into the 1980s. (The most recent song performed is "Hero," a hit for Mariah Carey in 1993.) The overall gist is that women sang popular songs with more powerful and independent voices as the century wore on. As the author asks early in the play, "Why didn't Fanny Brice [1891-1951] sing 'I am woman, hear me roar?'"

I'll buy that thesis, up to a point: The "I am strong, I am invincible" of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" (1972) was preceded by the "I'm tough" of "Piece of My Heart," sung by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968. Before that you weren't hearing anything in that vein, from white female singers anyway.

However, well after that time frame, the older themes continue prominently in pop. Vulnerability and yearning have always been staples of popular music, sung by singers of either sex. At least one of the songs featured in the show intended to illustrate pathetic dependence was actually sung on the charts by a male group: "Bend Me Shape Me" (American Breed, 1968). This is more than a picky detail, because if men were and are also waxing needily in song ("The Worst That Could Happen," anyone? Or "All By Myself"? Or "Living Next Door to Alice"?)  it weakens the gender argument.

With regard to female neediness, is there a substantive difference between the lyrical messages of Betty Boop in the 1930s and "Love to Love You Baby" (Donna Summer, 1976) or "Teenage Dream" (Katy Perry, 2010), neither of which the show referenced? "Bobby's Girl" by Marci Blane (1962) is one of the most awful combinations of words in the English language, and Joanie Summers's "Johnny Get Angry" from the same year is just about as bad, but you can also get world class cringes listening to the lyrics of "Jesse" by Carly Simon or "Upside Down" by Diana Ross, both of which were released in 1980. The gender evolution of pop is much less linear than the show implies: Lesley Gore sang "You Don't Own Me" two years before the Chiffons sang "Sweet-Talkin' Guy;" a year earlier she'd sung the cringe-worthy "Judy's Turn to Cry." I wonder if the later songs might seem less needy/dependent, if only because the social context in which the words are sung had changed?

Bottom line: the top 40 is not a church, nor is it a legal or ethical system. It's a commercial marketplace, and as such will always be attentive to the neediness of the vulnerable and yearning. If dependence can be sold, it will be sold. If "I Am Woman" or "Hero" can be sold, they will be sold.

All the above text shows is that I did really attend the show, and that I remember way too many details of 1960s-80s pop charts (verified along the way with The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn [Billboard Books, 7th ed, 2000]). But it's not what I really wanted to blog about.

After the show two or three women in the audience thought it remarkable that I had stuck it out through all of what one called "the musical version of a chick flick." One said her husband had pointedly refused to attend. I had not been thinking of the show that way, and still don't, although it's true that when men are mentioned at all in Respect it's almost never positively. I think I still felt at the end like I was on the winning side, i.e. the liberation of women did not come at the expense of men, but was a victory for all humanity. We can only get to true community when all members are free and equal.

Surely whites will affirm that we are better off for the civil rights movement having happened. Even though I am middle class, the diminishment of the working class has left me poorer because society's fabric is torn. We are getting close to the day when straight people will recognize they are in a better place and the institution of marriage is strengthened because the rights of gays and lesbians are recognized. Maybe, someday, Christians will acknowledge that "religious freedom" consists, not in dominating the dialogue in a nostalgic Christian America, but in a community-wide conversation in which people of all faiths, and no faith, are full partners.

That is what I wanted to say, but now I've strayed from the show. Because the author didn't take us to a community of gender equality, but stopped with women having achieved independence.  It's her play, and bad form to demand a different play than the one the author intended, so I won't. Her story ends with her following her grandmother and mother into single parenthood, albeit her status is due to her husband's death rather than the perfidy of her father and grandfather. She ends the play with two capstone songs, pairing the title song with Gloria Gaynor's 1978 hit "I Will Survive." Gaynor sings about refusing to return to a terrible relationship, and that sounds like a good call. But once women (or men) have survived, have attained equality and independence, there needs to be a next step. Survival for what? Independence for what? Freedom for what? I think the answer to the question Dorothy Mancic doesn't ask is the same as the reason men can and should enjoy this production as much as women: community. "No man is an island," wrote John Donne, and no woman can be, either.

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